Suicides Among Black Children Are On the Rise. Where Are We?
Pictured: Dr. Michael A. Lindsey
Seven Bridges’ mother says the 10-year-old was a Christian whose faith was so strong that he prayed for the children who bullied him. The Louisville, Ky., fifth-grader would often receive taunts over a health condition that required him to wear a colostomy bag. In accordance to his Christian ethos, he turned the other cheek when a fellow student called him the N-word on a school bus. Another student choked him during that incident. Yet in the end, the worst tragedy Seven suffered was by his own hand. On Jan. 19, he ended his life by hanging. In doing so, he joined the growing number of Black children between the ages of 5 and 11 who are committing suicide.
Childhood suicides such as Seven’s are still relatively rare, but they are growing at an alarming rate, particularly among Black boys in that age group. From 1993 through 2012, 657 children between the ages of 5 and 11 took their own lives in the United States, according to a 2015 report by epidemiologist Jeffrey Bridge and colleagues. Notably, suicide rates doubled among Black youngsters ages 5-11 during that time period, while decreasing among White children the same age. Furthermore, the suicide rate is roughly twice as high as for Black children 5-11 than it is for White children the same age.
The most common method? Hanging, just as Seven had used. Its use increased between 1993 and 2012 among Black boys in particular. While we don’t know the exact reasons why they choose hanging, the practice can’t help but move African Americans, in particular, given the horrific history of lynching in the United States. Why are our children choosing to end their lives in the brutal manner that snuffed out the lights of our ancestors? What is going on?
We need answers, now. Answers for Seven Bridges; for 9-year-old McKenzie Adams, who hanged herself in Alabama on Dec. 3, 2018 after what her parents allege was bullying; and for many others, including 11-year-old Rylan Thai Hagan of Washington, D.C. On Nov. 20, 2017, he tied his school uniform belt around his neck and left this world while his mother, Nataya Chambers, was out of the home running errands.
Not long ago, I interviewed Chambers as part of a project I am working on, to understand the circumstances around why he killed himself. She struggles to come up with an answer. Rylan seemed to be the all-American child: an honor roll student and active in sports. He had no mental health issues that Chambers was aware of. She encouraged me to share their story, but only if I helped her to understand why her son, and many other children like Rylan, are committing suicide at such young ages.
We do know that children’s depression symptoms can differ from adult depression symptoms. Instead of showing despair or withdrawing, as an adult does in a depressed mood, a child may complain about how their head or stomach hurts. They may complain of being bored or seem irritable. Or, they may lash out in anger or be hypersensitive to rejection or failure. They may have trouble sleeping, or sleep too much. You may hear them say they want run away from home, or even follow through with it. Trouble concentrating, struggling with schoolwork or disciplinary problems can be other signs of depression; though certainly, being depressed doesn’t usually lead to suicide in children.
In 2017 I co-wrote a paper about Black boys and suicidality. One topic that came up was toxic masculinity. We frequently socialize boys to “man up,” “fight it” and be tough — messages boys can internalize in ways that blunt their emotional express. Recently-released American Psychological Association guidelines about treating men and boys recognize that “traditional masculinity ideology” can have a negative effect on men and boys, and they note the increased suicide rate among Black boys.
Rylan’s mom said that she recognized the “man up” approach with respect to how she parented him sometimes, as well as how his father did, who a few years prior had returned to his life after being incarcerated. Even coaches would tell Rylan, be tough, don’t cry, man up, she said. Rylan’s mom is not alone. This is societal. Americans often tell boys to put on a brave face. Within the black community we even extend this attitude to our girls, convinced that they must be made tough enough to take on the racial and gender oppression that they inevitably face.
These are important topics that must be discussed and addressed in the quest to stop the heart-wrenching trend of suicide in Black children. We have too little information about why our youngsters are choosing to end their lives. Investments must be made in evidence-based research that uncovers the reasons and leads to the development of effective, life-saving interventions. At the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, we are committed to research in this area.
Additionally, more resources must be directed toward hiring school-based mental health counselors. There ought to be at least one per school. Yet, incredibly, the ratio of public school students per school psychologist tops 1,400, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Furthermore, educators, school personnel and parents must be trained to spot suicidality in Black children, and address problems before it is too late.
There are reasons to be hopeful. Look no further than efforts such as the Thrive NYC roadmap, spearheaded by New York City first lady Chirlane McCray under the leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio since its inception in 2015. Accomplishments within the first two years relating to child mental health included (but were not limited to) providing social and emotional learning for pre-schoolers; hiring more than 100 mental health consultants reaching 904 K-12 schools without pre-existing mental health services; and training more than 700 mental health and early childhood professionals in evidence-based treatment and trauma-informed practices, through the New York City Early Childhood Mental Health Training and Technical Assistance Center (co-operated by the McSilver Institute). For context, 24 percent of the city’s population is Black, and so are 26 percent of the public school students.
Such efforts are steps in the right direction, but make no mistake: It will take a commitment by all of us, within the Black community and beyond, to reverse the tide of suicides among our precious children. We must be vigilant to our children’s needs and prepared to speak up to make sure that public attention and resources are devoted to saving their lives.
Dr. Michael A. Lindsey is a noted scholar in the field of child and adolescent mental health and the executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University (NYU). He also is the Martin Silver Professor of Poverty Studies at NYU Silver School of Social Work and an Aspen Health Innovators Fellow.